Where Is AI Taking Photography?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has leapt into photography, and as usual, Olympus cameras lead the way with these new technologies. Great for enticing new photographers into our art, it simplifies capturing images. However, as AI takes its first big steps into photography, will it boost overall sales?

For a previous article, I interviewed wildlife photographer Rob Cottle, who emphasized the good stuff about the technology available in cameras. I agree with him. Tech makes photography accessible to more people by easing the introduction to photography. In turn, that helps keep our art alive. It also enables accomplished photographers to get shots that were previously impossible to achieve.

But, how much of an impact will AI have on photography? To answer this, we must start by taking a step back and considering new tech in the context of the camera's recent history.

The Boom

The sales of advanced camera systems in the 2000s and early 2010s were huge, but they were mainly driven by ever-increasing pixel counts. This always struck me as odd. After all, you only need around 10-megapixels for a photo-quality 20x30" print and far less for sharing on social media. So, for accomplished photographers who tried to get everything right in the camera, those extra microscopic dots of color meant little more than greater file sizes.

Don't believe me? Go onto Flickr or 500px and search for images shot with any old 10-megapixel camera, and you'll find some great photos that stand up to today's standards. Of course, I am just referring to the pixel count here. Those old cameras had less dynamic range than contemporary ones because technology has moved on. Consequently, there are things you can achieve with today's cameras that were unthinkable 10 years ago.

On the other side of the argument, more pixels did give more scope for cropping, although cropping is rarely a good substitute for getting closer to the subject.

This one I captured in 2004 using a Nikon five-megapixel camera. Apart from some chromatic aberration from the lens, the quality of the image is still pretty good, even by today's standards. Image © Ivor Rackham 2004

Fewer pixels and, consequently, larger photosites on the sensor, would have equated to lower pixel density and so a greater dynamic range and noise control. Unfortunately for photography, higher pixel counts were easy to market, especially to naïve novices.

The Crash

The success of that advertising was relatively short-lived. The camera market grew too big and then crashed. This was widely and correctly blamed on the introduction of cameras into smartphones. However, there was more to it than that.

Beginner photographers were promised great photos by buying this or that DSLR camera. But photographers required both the skills to operate the camera and the eye to compose a great shot. Flashier cameras did nothing to improve their photography unless their owners took the time and the money to learn the skills, which many didn't. Then, when their photos were disappointed, they were taken in by the pixel count lie. They upgraded their kit, but of course, their photographs didn't improve. I wonder how many old DSLRs now sit collecting dust with their mode dials still on auto as a consequence.

The speed of photographic technological change slowed. Sure, there were some improvements in what cameras offered, but fewer ground-breaking innovations appeared compared to the first 15 years of digital photography. Taking photographs didn't become any easier for the beginner. Indeed, even the professional, who was more likely to know how to use the manual controls of their camera, didn't need to upgrade; their cameras were good enough. That was until pro-grade mirrorless cameras appeared on the market.

Is Upgrading Worthwhile?

The cameras I bought five years ago still do everything I need of them, and I make a living from photography. Should I spend money updating my kit? If not, why would a beginner or intermediate need to upgrade?

Maybe AI is the juicy worm on the hook that will tempt us. Why? As I said at the start, AI can make photography more accessible to beginners and give us experienced photographers a higher percentage of successful images.

But will those who were disheartened and left their first or second-generation DSLRs to gather dust take another shot at becoming photographers? Will the miracle inbuilt software promise to make every camera owner into the latest incarnation of Ansel Adams or David Bailey? Probably not, but maybe AI can give them a far larger nudge in the right direction than higher pixel counts ever could.

The problem that manufacturers will face is persuading consumers that the upgrade is worth it. Nevertheless, big advancements in camera technology are not just around the corner, they are here. Camera and software development are focussing on AI, and it is something to embrace.

Professional wildlife photographer Tesni Ward with the Olympus OM-D E-M1X

Where AI Is at Now

Some might say that the term "AI" in photography stretches the definition. But, what we are seeing in cameras at the moment is the first of artificial intelligence's four progressive stages.

Those are:

  1. Reactivity: changing behavior depending upon inputs. This is where camera AI sits.
  2. Limited Memory: remembering recent events and reacting to them, such as a self-drive vehicle reacting to traffic and pedestrians.
  3. Theory of Mind: this is where a machine reacts to the thoughts and emotions of the human mind. This has not been achieved yet.
  4. Self-Aware: this is where the machine becomes conscious and aware of its own existence.

Cameras are still just reactive machines that rely on pre-programmed algorithms, that first stage of Aartificial intelligence. However, despite phrases like Canon's "Deep Learning" and Sony's claims that their "Intelligent Vision" IMX500 sensor has built-in AI, they don't yet learn from recent events and change their behavior accordingly, let alone have able to apply a theory of mind or have self-awareness. They rely on being pre-programmed. Nevertheless, the power of their processors and the complexity of their algorithms are impressive, and they are very quickly taking the technology forward.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1X AI includes built-in train, motor sport, and airplane recognition, and the latest firmware upgrade added birds to that list. It locks onto birds' eyes, even when the subject is partially obscured by foliage. Olympus promise more updates to come.

AI already allows a skilled photographer to achieve a greater number of successful shots. Face and eye recognition have been a feature in cameras for years, but now, the Olympus E-M1X has bird and other subject recognition inbuilt with the promise of further facilities in the future. That, coupled with Pro-Capture, which saves frames in a buffer before the shutter is fully pressed, means that the success rate for bird photographers has increased enormously.

But will AI Deskill the Photographer? 

This was a question asked by Robert Baggs in his article. There are concerns about this advanced automation. Taking wildlife photography as an example, it could be argued that we may lose the need to study a bird’s behavior to predict when it will take off. We won't anymore learn how to predict and follow a bird’s flight and know how to keep it in focus if the camera does it all for us. In time, as this technology improves, won’t everyone become a wildlife photographer without having to put in the effort? Will the same apply to every genre?

Arctic Tern. Will AI technology deskill photographers or act as a stepping stone for them to learn how to capture their subjects? Image © Ivor Rackham 2019

I don't think so. Just as auto mode is a stepping stone to using aperture or shutter priority and manual modes, we should see using technology as a way more people can access the first steps of photography.

What is more, like any art, we do photography because it is creative. The artist gets delight from painting, but not so much painting by numbers. The wood carver gets so much more from using his chisel and carefully sculpting a piece of mahogany than putting a pattern into a CNC machine. Likewise, a photographer gets satisfaction from applying their knowledge and skill to capture the shot.

The true joy of photography is the journey we undertake. How we achieve a photograph matters. Anyone who delves into photography will ultimately discover this truth. Like auto mode, AI will be a stepping stone to mastering the art.

Should You Upgrade to a Camera With AI?

Historically, Olympus led the field with features like Live View, in-body image stabilization, and hybrid contrast and phase-detect autofocus. Other manufacturers played catch-up, introducing these new technologies much later; Canon and Nikon were very late to migrate to mirrorless cameras, and so when they realized that was a mistake, they rushed out their products. Consequently, their brand-faithful consumers sometimes paid the price with goods released that were not properly developed and tested before releases, such as Canon's R5 and R6 overheating, and before that, the failed Nikon 1 system.

Now, Olympus is still ahead of the game. Added to their subject detect AI system are other advanced features: LiveTime, which allows you to watch long exposures build up on the screen; LiveComp, where you can record multiple exposures in one file with only changes in light being recorded; Pro Capture, where images are stored in a buffer when the shutter is half-pressed, and so you never miss a shot because of slow reactions; in-built digital ND filters; 60 frames per second raw shooting; plus a teleconverter built into the lens.

If manufacturers are no longer able to gain new customers with megapixel upgrades and sensor technology otherwise levels the playing field as far as image quality is concerned, then it's AI and these exciting new innovations that will attract photographers and make them jump ship to more technologically advanced systems. This is one reason why there is a growing stream of photographers migrating to the Olympus system cameras.

The Olympus family of cameras

Will I upgrade? The more I look at it, the more tempted I am to add that E-M1X to my collection.

Olympus camera Images used with kind permission of OMD Digital Solutions UK

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17 Comments

Peter Perry's picture

There will always be people who standout. Guys like David Yarrow, all the technology in the world will not give the average joe the vision he has.

Mike Shwarts's picture

True but the average person may not be looking to be the next great photographer. She may want to take the kinds of photos a phone can't capture, but with the abilities a phone has. She may want more keepers of her kids with the hardware that you can't fit into a phone. Bring the AI (and some non-AI phone features) to the dedicated camera, since you are very limited in bring them to the phone.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Peter and Mike, I agree with both of you! A lot of the technology is just making photography more accessible. In my previous article with Rob Cottle, https://fstoppers.com/interview/how-technology-revolutionizing-wildlife-..., you'll see he is an accomplished wildlife photographer and tends not to use a lot of the tech available to him. But for someone who doesn't have that experience or technical skills, having technologies that can help give better results. This then may lead them onto exploring the art further. Thank you for commenting

Ed C's picture

"Don't believe me? Go onto Flickr or 500px and search for images shot with any old 10-megapixel camera, and you'll find some great photos that stand up to today's standards."

Come on that is just silly, obvious and has nothing to do with the cameras used. Of course at that resolution it can hold up, especially for subjects that don't have wide dynamic range or are exposure blended.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Ed, I suppose it is obvious if you already know that. I try to aim my articles at all levels of readership, and not just experienced and knowledgeable photographers like yourself. Looking at it from the other side, there is a lot of advertising that insists that more pixels is better; it is a major marketing point and people, especially beginners, are taken in by that. I think it is worth challenging those sorts of assertions. Thanks for commenting.

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

Until we get AI that can aim the camera for us, zoom to the right framing, predict when a bird will take flight and follow it in flight and take good pictures at the same time, I don't think any AI will take over for us humans.

It will make it easier for us to get good focus and exposures. But it can never predict if I want the person in the foreground or the person in the background to be in focus or is I want a high-key picture or not.

We have gone from manual focus to simple one autofocus point to hundreds of autofocus point and now to thousands of autofocus point to eye autofocus, and we still have manual override on our cameras.

We have gone from no build-in metering to center weighted to TTL-flash control to multicell average metering to metering following the thousands of autofocus points, and yet - we still have exp compensating build into our cameras to quickly override the automation.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I agree, the artistic eye is definitely the most important aspect of any photographic system. It will be interesting to see where AI takes us in the future. Thank you for your comment.

Matt Williams's picture

As an Olympus user, I love the features they pack into their cameras, which - as this article rightly points are - are easily the closest to smartphone-like AI that you'll find in an ILC. Live Composite is a phenomenal way to mimic long exposures without the need for ND filters or changes to your aperture (the camera just takes a series of photos at various intervals and stacks them, so your actual exposure time is far less than it would be in a normal long exposure, but the results are incredibly similar). Live Time and Bulb are also amazing, which is something you can see in action in smartphones.

Not to mention in-camera focus stacking (into a RAW file, not just JPEG), Live ND, and the best image stabilization out there, especially if you use one of the Olympus lenses with IS which gives up to 7.5 stops of stabilization (and Olympus tends to be much more honest about this than most others). The handheld high-res mode is nice, but like with Pentax, it really isn't that good. You're better off using Adobe's "enhance" feature in ACR.

Oh, and they're easily the most weatherproof mirrorless cameras made by anyone - on par with, if not better than, Pentax. I think they even released an ad or something about how to clean your camera (basically wash it in the sink).

I still only have the E-M1 Mark II (and the E-M5 Mark III) and I've almost pulled the trigger on a used E-M1X or E-M1 III recently. But I have heard they'll be releasing a new flagship body before long, so I'm going to wait (if only for it to drive the price down on the others).

Ivor Rackham's picture

The E-M1 Mark II is still a fine camera that holds its own - I have and use one. Some features in the new cameras are hugely tempting. I'm looking forward to the upgrade news too. Thank you for your comment.

Matt Williams's picture

Oh it's absolutely a great camera - and a great value as you can find some used for real bargains now (I can't believe they still sell it new for $1699, which is absurd - I paid $650 for mine in great condition). Right now the Mark 3 is actually $200 cheaper than the Mark 2 haha.

I'll most likely grab an E-M1X or E-M1 III once the new camera is announced.

Micro 4/3 Rumors says Sony announced a new 20MP stacked BSI m4/3 sensor (finally BSI for m4/3!!) which they think might be in the new Olympus. That will be pretty tempting too...

Ivor Rackham's picture

I think there are exciting times ahead. :) Thanks!

Tom Reichner's picture

Will AI deskill the photographer?

Never!

Why?

Because .....

The creative part of photography involves things like where, exactly, to take the photo from, what to include in the composition and what to exclude from it, what part of the background to align the subject with, what part of your subject to have the horizon line transect, how to size the main subject and the supporting elements in relation to one another, etc.

No camera technology or features will ever do those things for the photographer, because they are subjective, aesthetic decisions that change from one situation/subject to another. These are all decisions that the artist inside of us must make for ourselves.

A creative photographer still needs to use their mental capacities for these things, and having the camera take care of the technical things frees up our minds for these much more important creative decisions.

When people express the idea that cameras with all of the latest bells and whistles make it so that the photographer doesn't need as much skill or creativity to make compelling images, that just shows their ignorance about what is creative and "real" about photography. Precise focus and proper exposure are not creative at all. They are just technical things, not artistic or creative things. I hate it when my brain has to be spent on those technical things, because that takes away how much of my brain is available for the "real" things that actually matter.

Of course I would prefer to use a camera that will automatically focus perfectly and automatically get the perfect exposure, so that my brain can be completely free to do the things that really matter, like those things that I mentioned in the first sentence of this explanation. Those things are what "real photography" is all about. Let a machine do robotic technical things so that the human can better do the creative artistic things.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you for that interesting reply, Tom. I agree with everything you say. As I said in the article, the more the photographic artist puts into their work, the more satisfaction it has for the photographer. Tech is just an aid that we can use and abandon when we don't need it.

Jeremy Lusk's picture

Did else get a panic attack from that photo of Tensi balancing her camera+telephoto with one hand on smooth wet rock inches above the water??

Ivor Rackham's picture

I had an Olympus camera on a tripod fall over onto rocks in the middle of a river a couple of weeks ago. Picked it up, dried it off, carried on shooting! I was watching another deliberately semi-submerge his to shoot across the surface of the water. Not recommended, but he does it all the time and it goes to show how robust and well sealed they are. Tesni is a superb photographer and a former Olympic athlete. If it had slipped, I bet her reactions would be a lot faster than mine! Thank you for your great comment.

Michael Dougherty's picture

It appears that AI may be most beneficial automatically selecting and focusing on the proper subject. My first digital camera (2003?) was the Nikon D2H. One of the AF options was "close focus AF". It was great for sports and birding but this is the only Nikon body that I know of that had this option. The focusing on my D2X and subsequent Nikon models lagged in comparison. It just shows that you don't really need AI to implement proper AF.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, it was a superb camera with great focussing capabilities in its day. I wonder why Nikon dropped that feature.

You are right, AI and other technological advancements aren't strictly necessary for experienced photographers to take great photos; Rob Cottle said as much in my interview with him. But, new tech does make life easier for us photographers. When I first started shooting, the Pentax ME-F had not long been released and Auto Focus was a novelty; my analogue SLRs were (still are) manual focus only. Now AF is commonplace and manufacturers would be laughed at if they dropped it as a feature. Will that happen with AI?

I think lots of innovations come and go and time will tell whether in-camera AI will be here to stay. It's certainly making a big impact on photography software. Like auto mode and scene presets, it will definitely help learners take steps forward in learning their skills.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.